In the midst of a tumultuous time, one man seemed to lead the charge toward a new republic during the French Revolution. Maximilien Robespierre, born on May 6, 1758 in the small city of Arras, became the loudest voice during the Reign of Terror — and, ultimately, was swallowed up by the very spirit of rebellion he instigated with his impassioned speeches.
For centuries before his birth, Robespierre’s family made the Artois province — now part of the Picardy region in northern France — their home. Growing up 110 miles north of Paris, he was heavily influenced by the career choice of his father and grandfather, both also named Maximilien: the younger Robespierre wished to become an attorney, as his ancestors had for generations.
From the start, Robespierre excelled academically. When he began formal education at the age of eight, unlike most children he could read and write. Three years later, he received a scholarship to the prestigious Lycee Louis-le-Grand, moving to Paris to attend school for the next twelve years. Known for his discipline and drive to achieve, Robespierre was honored time after time during his schooling, including being chosen to deliver a welcome to King Louis XVI when he visited the school shortly after receiving the crown.
By the time he received his law degree in 1781, Robespierre cemented himself as a proponent of direct democracy. Influenced by the theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Baron de Montesquieu, he positioned himself as a man determined to see the ideas which arose during the Enlightenment brought to life, particularly with respect to their applications for law. Writing frequently from his office in Arras, Robespierre received a prize in 1784 for his impassioned argument against a criminal’s family losing its reputation for merely having one individual make poor choices.
To the citizens of Arras, Robespierre was the epitome of a man for the age: he was fluent in the Roman classics, he fought on behalf of the poor and marginalized, and he engaged in the local arts scene. As anti-monarchy sentiments became more common near the end of the 1780s, Robespierre lent his voice to the outcry for a truly representative legislative body. Traditional election laws would, in his mind, prevent a vast number of French people from having their interests forwarded by the Estates-General. Despite being relatively poor and without connections, he secured a position in the National Assembly just as the country looked to write a new constitution.
In the wake of the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, France was in the midst of a dramatic shift. Robespierre soon found himself forwarding thoughts focused on a wholly new government built on basic human rights. His thoughtful declaration of inalienable provisions for every person regardless of their station won him many friends among the Jacobin Club, a group of French citizens who sought to see the Revolution carried out to its fullest extent. Eventually, the more moderate elements of the organization’s leadership were pushed out, forming a whole new political party, the Feuillants, leaving Robespierre and his fellow radicals to run rampant at the head of the Jacobins.
Working in the renamed Constituent Assembly, Robespierre railed against the king and republican ideology until the body was dissolved on September 30, 1792 — nine days after Louis and the royal family were convicted of treason. Called “The Incorruptible” by his supporters, the summer had been a productive time for Robespierre. In succession, he proposed the end of the monarchy in June, helped establish a tribunal in August and received an appointment to the National Convention in Paris just days before the king and queen faced trial for “crimes against France.”
By the fall of 1792, it was clear to many that Robespierre and his allies, the Montagnards, were backed by the will of the people. Accusations of a conspiracy to wrest control of the government were voiced loudly by the rival Girondists, but the cries of corruption fell on deaf ears. In a fierce reply from the floor of the Legislative Assembly, Robespierre said he would “not remind you that the sole object of contention dividing us is that you have instinctively defended all acts of new ministers and we, of principles: that you seemed to prefer power, and we equality.” Revolutionary sentiment was now at a fever pitch with Robespierre essentially pulling the strings.
Early in 1793, the royal family was guillotined in Paris and two months later a Revolutionary Tribunal became the central authority of the French government. In the weeks that followed, a pair of political groups were given control of the police, the Committee of General Security, and the Committee of Public Safety. Eager to find those who were impeding the move toward a France of the people, both were empowered by the declaration that it was “time that equality bore its scythe above all heads.” The Reign of Terror officially commenced that September.
Robespierre, with his charisma on the stage and gift for rhetoric, became the de facto face of the Committee of Public Safety. During the winter, as 1794 dawned, he energetic call for residents of Paris to continue the Revolution gained volume. Those who shied away from the dirty business of forming an extraordinarily different nation — men like Robespierre’s former Montagnard colleague, Georges Danton — were quickly brought to trial and executed. By May 1794, Robespierre and his supporters were squeezing the opposition at every turn, leaving those with other beliefs plotting assassinations to counter their influence.
Rabid and arrogant, Robespierre finally pushed his power too far when he demanded legislation designed to pip the Committee of General Security in the policing effort. With less and less evidence required to convict “counter-revolutionaries,” the people’s trust of the former lawyer from Arras gradually wilted. On July 27, 1794, one of Robespierre’s associates attempted to make a speech in the National Convention — one filled with a new round of fresh accusations — and was interrupted before he could get started. When Robespierre made an effort to speak, the collective voice of the other politicians drowned him out. In a matter of minutes, two of his deputies were mocking him and a third, finding a rare moment of speechlessness from the man who had said so much to inspire the Revolution, shouted “The blood of Danton chokes him!”
The legislative session ended with five Montagnards arrested, including Robespierre. Labeled criminals by the National Convention, the men were eligible for execution within twenty-four hours — no trial was necessary. Late in the evening, Robespierre was found in his room at the Hotel de Ville bleeding from the face. In an apparent attempt to kill himself, he had instead shattered his jaw, leaving him unable to talk.
Throughout the night, as blood soaked the handkerchief wrapped around his mouth, Robespierre laid on a table in the meeting room for the Committee of Public Safety. The following morning, he joined 16 of his followers on the gallows at the Place de la Revolution, guillotined in front of the masses on July 28, 1794. His body was dumped unceremoniously into a hole at the Errancis Cemetery with those of the rest killed that morning, unofficially bringing the Reign of Terror to an end.
More than two centuries after his death, Robespierre remains a perplexing figure in French and world history. His goals of human rights and virtue, while admirable, are colored by the legacy of force and suspicion pervading his time as the captain of the Revolution. For many, Robespierre will remain a fascinating blend of talent and mania through the ages.
Also On This Day:
1682 – King Louis XIV of France moves the royal court from Paris to the Palace of Versailles.
1889 – The Eiffel Tower is officially opened to the public.
1937 – The German airship Hindenburg bursts into flames over Lakehurst, New Jersey.
1954 – Roger Bannister becomes the first person to run the mile in under four minutes.
1994 – The opening of the Channel Tunnel is presided over by Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom and French President Francois Mitterand.